Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Labyrinth Lord- kickin' it old school part 1

The late 1960's and early 1970's saw the birth of the modern role playing game. The products available at the time were poorly edited, hard to find, and often difficult or impossible to understand. Nevertheless, they were breathtakingly thrilling to read. The books described fantastic creatures, wizards, ruined cities, amazing spells, long lost treasure drenched in magic.... Everything that you might have read about in Conan stories or the adventures of Fafrd and the Grey Mauser. And you could experience all of it through playing the game! They seemed like passports to worlds of "strangeness, beauty, and charm." The memories of those first games are still vivid for me, and for a fairly large population of other people who enjoyed Dungeons and Dragons, Melee, and Tunnels and Trolls.

Recent legal developments have allowed small publishers to reprint the early Dungeons and Dragons rules with some small modifications. These are known as "retro-clones." Some retro-clones may be developed for business purposes but it's likely that the majority are created in an effort to capture the excitement and energy of early Dungeons and Dragons. Some of these reprints are available in stores but some are free online. One of the free versions is Labyrinth Lord.

In our discussion of Labyrinth Lord we'll assume that the reader has some sense of how RPGs work. For more details regarding RPGs see previous postings on RPG basics.

Labyrinth Lord is set in a fictional dark ages world. Players act out the roles of wizards, elves, warriors, and the like. As in basic Dungeons and Dragons some players will be able to cast spells- wizards, elves, and clerics. Some players may have special abilities- thieves can pick pockets, dwarves and spot traps. Fighter characters have no special abilities but are more versatile and can survive traps and battles better than other characters. Ideally a party of players will have a mix of all types, with each player shining in some setting.

As products go Labyrinth Lord is hard to assess. The rules seem about as confusing as the original set was. There are terms which are poorly explained or not explained at all. Charts appear in unlikely places so some flipping around is required. In addition the game world is not described in any detail. You're given no information as to why the players have come together, whether there is a king, a city, the name of the land, etc. It's left unclear how wizards acquire their spells and while there is a "cleric" player type it is never explained what the local deities are that the player might be a cleric of.

At this point many fans of original Dungeons and Dragons would say "awesome job!" since all this accurately replicates the original set of Dungeons and Dragons rules. In that context you could say that Labyrinth Lord is actually a huge success. The writers of retro-clones have a tough decision to make. Capturing the spirit of original Dungeons and Dragons requires capturing some of it's faults as well as it's strengths. If you polish the old rules do you make an inferior product- a game system which is not as evolved as present role playing games and lacking the charm of the original? You might also go further and say that some of the faults are actually hidden gems. The lack of any defined world structure allows players to create their own worlds and kingdoms. You could argue that real creativity occurs when you have wide vistas to paint and populate. For more details regarding the foibles and strengths of original Dungeons and Dragons visit this interesting essay at the Museum of Role Playing Games.

While the theory behind the retro-clone and the structure of Dungeons and Dragons is pretty interesting to me personally, how does the typical parent approach Labyrinth Lord? And, for that matter, why should the typical parent even consider the game? I think the game has two target audiences that could get quite a lot from it. One is older players who want to relive their youth. The other is a parent who played some Dungeons and Dragons in their youth and wants to introduce it to their children. The present edition of Dungeons and Dragons sells for sixty to one hundred dollars! What's more, it's become fairly complex over the years, so complex that my RPG club would probably never even try it. In comparison the rules to Labyrinth Lord are free to download. They include lists of monsters, spells, and treasure- everything you need to run a game. And they're simple and perfect for beginners. In that sense they're a great value.

Imagine you have some children with an interest in RPGs. This is an ideal way to show them how the games work and see how things go. A parent with some experience in Dungeons and Dragons can run Labyrinth Lord easily and navigate the editing and rules ambiguities that would confuse a novice. You could also offer the game to older children and see how they manage it, remaining available to help out if the players get stumped.

I would recommend Labyrinth Lord to any parent who wants to introduce their child to a fun hobby, assuming the parent has some experience in the genre already. Parents with no RPG experience might wish to try Zorcerer of Zo or Faerie's Tale instead. But if you played a bit of Dungeons and Dragons in the past then Labyrinth Lord could be a great way to get the kids playing.

Labyrinth Lord is available as a free download from Goblinoid Games. The web site offers additional support materials and adventures for the game.

Pros: Respectful approach to a great game, simple rules, classic fun

Cons: may be difficult for absolute beginners to grasp, but at this price...

Beyond the Basics: There's a vast universe of role playing games out there, welcome to a hobby that lasts a lifetime

People with an interest in old role playing games can visit the Museum of Role Playing Games! Well worth the trip.


  1. Nice review, Dr. Fischer. Now there is a revised version out for the game as well, with a new look.
    And there is also a plethora of blogs out there with free material for the retro-clones. Telecanter's Receding Rules, Lord Kilgore, Beyond the Black Gate, etc.

  2. For easy fantasy role-playing, I would also recommend Dark City Games' "Legends of the Ancient World," a retro-clone of Steve Jackson's "In the Labyrinth," the great-granddaddy of "GURPS." Also "Dungeonslayers," a German game recently translated into English. Both are free downloads with lots of on-line support. "Legends" is 13 pages long and miniatures-oriented. "Dungeonslayers" is 20 pages with separate downloads for rules expansions and a larger creature selection. Goblinoid Games also puts out "Mutant Future," a retro-clone of "Gamma World" that has rules compatible with "Labyrinth Lord" (for parents who shy away from magic but like science fiction). It is 162 pages long and also a free download with lots of on-line support.

  3. One of the con's of old games was that you either played them and "got them" or stumbled around.

    I don't blame the designers. I've put together several tutorials and games-intended-to-be-tutorials for completely puzzled people. It can take fifty to a hundred pages to do the subject justice. Even then: not very good justice.

    I might blame early designers for not offering those tutorials (if they existed, I never found them). But given the limits of publishing space in early years, explaining anything in depth would have crushed many early games. Today designers can wallow in thick books; back then, they couldn't.

    Another issue is that once you know how, you don't need the explanations. So, printing the same things over and over in each book can waste everyone's time.

    What anyone who is confused should do is find some good tutorials on just role-playing games. Not explanations of rules, but something devoted to "how-to-play role-playing games" itself.